The year is 1595 BC. Babylon. … It was an unbearable hot summer day, typical of Mesopotamia. The sun seemed to stand stock-still in the zenith. People sheltered themselves in the shade waiting for the evening hours; hoping that a stray gale from the remote mountains in the North might reach this damned city, which considered itself to be the centre of the world.
Suddenly the air was filled with the clatter of horses’ hooves and a horde of dashing cavalry and chariots flooded the streets of the town. It was not just a gust of wind, but an unruly and disruptive storm. Sitting on the backs of their huge horses, merciless soldiers shot their arrows, unleashed their swords and killed all those who tried to resist. Powerful and arrogant Babylon buried in luxury and dissipated life, a tyrant country that like a leech had sucked the blood of the peasants, now became a victim itself. The once powerful Babylon kingdom was powerless to resist and fell under the mighty blows of the northern tribes. Their successors now became the masters of the country and ruled there for five centuries.
Where did these powerful warriors come from, who like an unruly wave disturbed the peace of the country and overcame the defenses guarded by glorious Babylon warriors? Our evidence for the attack comes from the Hittites, and their powerful ruler Mursilisi (Mushegh), who during his southern campaign struck a severe blow to the Mitanni and captured and destroyed many cities in Syria. Was it only a Hittite army that captured Babylon?
After destroying and plundering Babylon, the invaders presumably returned to their country with a rich booty and there is evidence that this rich booty has been found in Armenia. It also appears that the peoples who destroyed Babylon were mounted troops and chariot riders. It is logical to assume that the warriors that captured Babylon were from a country that had ancient traditions of domestication of the horse and its use for military purposes.
The earliest evidence of such loot came from Emma Khanzadyan’s excavations at Metsamor in the 1970s. Here the tombs revealed a lot of important findings; among them the personal seals made of agate and cornelian with cuneiform and hieroglyph inscriptions of the kings of Babylon Ulam – Buriash and Karagalzu (Figure 3, 4). Why and how did they appear in Armenia? The findings were so bizarre and unexpected, that the archaeological world was not ready to answer these questions. Various hypotheses were put forward that they were trade or exchange, but surely the real answer is that they were brought in as loot.
Further evidence has now been obtained from major excavations at Naver, 25 km west of Yerevan. Here there are two sites at Verin (Upper) and Nerkin (Lower) Naver on the sprawling plateau between the rivers Kasakh and Shaghvert, in the middle of the three Armenian sacred mountains of Ararat, Aragats and Ara. These make a sacred triangle enclosing in their centre the Naver, once the dwelling place of Armenian kings. Here in the 1970s Hakob Simonyan led an expedition which found large Bronze Age sepulchres.
At Verin Naver this huge kurgan (barrow) was excavated with a burial chamber at the centre and a small subsidiary barrow to the left
However in the spring of 2009 he began the excavation of one of the largest kurgans in Verin (Upper) Naver with a special fund from the Academy of Sciences. The main excavation was a large kurgan with a diameter of 50 m covering a large grave chamber 17 m long and 3 m wide dating to the 15th century BC.
At the centre of the chamber was a two-horse chariot, though only the bronze fittings had been preserved: hundreds of pin-nails to decorate the body. There were also two horse bits, two circular guides for the reins – and a bird statuette. The actual burial was a cremation, a rite which is found in Hittite, ancient Aryan and, in general, in almost all Indo-European upper-class burial rituals. The burial was accompanied by sacrifices of men, animals, among them horses. Imported objects were found coming from the basin of Lake Van (mount Nemrout), 300 miles to the west.
Objects had been identified from Akkadia, Babylon, Sumer, Syria, and even from far away China. There were luxury adornments made of agate, cornelian, garnet, silver, coloured glass, and a jasper seal with the image of a horse on it. There was also a set of household and cult pottery.
Perhaps the most spectacular were the 62 arrow-points made of bright red jasper, orange flint and black and transparent obsidian (fig. 6). Even more important though less impressive were the iron weapons, for in the 2nd millennium BC iron was a rare and expensive metal and the objects made of it are found only in the burials of pharoes and kings. This is but a small part of what was put in the grave, for the tomb robbers the ‘black diggers’ had been there before us and it was only these objects that slipped from their eyes.
However the most spectacular finds of all were made on the floor of the rock chamber under the layer of broken shards, for here were the remains of a crown with five face reliefs of hero-kings. They were made of bitumen, and had once been covered with gold foil (fig.7), though the gold has unfortunately vanished and we have had to reconstruct a replica. There were also the badges of a shoulder belt with the images of rams and trees of life. The images have regular hairdos – wavy hair parted in the centre with plaits falling from the temples, wavy bushy beard, almond-shaped eyes, straight nose, and succulent lips peculiar to eminent and virtuous persons. With their regularly combed hair one can imagine the smell of the fragrant, expensive oils and perfumes with which these lavish hair dos were surely consecrated (fig. 8).
These medallions with their beautiful portraits of hero-kings are the only ancient facial reliefs from the Armenian Highland and the Caucasus that have survived; they are surely the images of real people who lived centuries ago. These images are accompanied by attributes of rams and rosettes which have their parallels in the art of one of the most powerful states of the ancient world, Elam, to the south of Iran. This is the earliest evidence of relations between Armenia and Persia (Elam) and it still needs to be studied.
The Naver area was clearly a long-lived burial ground, for the earlier excavations in 1970s have revealed a series of graves dating some 800 years earlier. From 2002 onwards six tombs were excavated, the most important grave N1 is dated to 2400 – 2300 BC, that is 800 years earlier than the graves described above. Here horses were sacrificed in the late autumn as evidenced by the flower seeds preserved in the dung. The hero-king buried in this grave wore a lion skin, which, according to the tradition of the Old World had to be hunted by that person.
In the same tomb luxury items of rock-crystal, orange cornelian, black and red agate were discovered. But the most impressive was the iron horse-bit, which was prepared by forging technologies; which is the earliest example of an iron curb known to us.
An interesting aspect is that the floors all seem to have been covered: in one case traces of a carpet were discovered. But in most of the others, rugs made from the skins of wild animals appear to have been placed over the floors of the graves. These Bronze Age burials were probably rather more gaudy in appearance than we imagine.
The big question is: were there any horse burials? The answer is slightly ambiguous. By far away the best evidence came from Tomb 1 where an iron horse bit was discovered. Iron at this period, at least a thousand years earlier than the conventional Iron Age, was extremely unusual and must have been found as a metallic lump which was then moulded into shape. Several of the graves also contained fragments of horse bone. Only one contained a complete burial and this was Grave 9 which lay some way apart from the others and contained the complete skeleton of a horse. But the radiocarbon dating of a tooth of a horse came out centring on 32 BC, so the dating of this tomb should be used with care.
In almost all regions of the Republic of Armenia bronze horse bridles have been found, dating to the middle of the II millennium BC, and providing sound evidence of the existence of the numerous cavalry in the late Bronze Age (Figure 2).
One of the most important was the bronze chariot model discovered in Loriberd near the town of Stepanavan. This shows battle scenes, where the warring armies consist of cavalry, heavy and light armed infantry, and units of transport. Such a structure of the armed forces could not only successfully maintain boundaries, but also conduct distant assaults.
Horse sacrifices, models of chariots, iron and bronze bridles…. The circle is complete. Here, in the heart of Armenia, ancient evidence of the domestication of the horse and its use as a riding steed has been discovered. Indeed I would like to speculate further: the earliest ‘history’ of Armenia was written by Moses Khorenatsi in the 5th or 6th century AD and provides what is virtually the only account of the history of Armenia in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. However, like Geoffrey of Monmouth in Britain his account stretches back into the dim and distant past with the foundation of Armenia by the Patriarch Hayk. Could it be that we have found evidence of the real tombs of his dynasty, the Haykazuniner?
The results provide a new view of the importance of Armenia in the Bronze Age. The usual archaeological view is based on Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Hittite kingdom, Mitanni and Elam (Figure 10, map): and Armenia is not even mentioned. However the material evidence from our excavations is surely persuasive, and brings to life and draws out of the dust and oblivion our ancient country. We may not have been mentioned in the Old Testament but we are surely among the countries which fought against the tyrant Babylon: is there perhaps even a memory of the ancient events in the later epics of the kingdom of Ararat and Askanazyan?